WASHINGTON – Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted this week that the Democratic nominating contest should turn on issues such as health care and energy. But despite their stated hopes, a different subject keeps pushing itself into the campaign: the role of race.
In the latest sign of a racial rift, two prominent black pastors warned Wednesday that if Clinton is the nominee, black voters could become so discouraged by the campaign that they might stay home in November.
“This is a virtual race war, politically,” said the Rev. Eugene Rivers of the Azusa Christian Community, a Pentecostal church in Boston.
Rivers, one of the country’s leading Pentecostal ministers, said black voters were especially offended by Clinton’s suggestion this week that Obama could join her on the ticket as her running mate. “Blacks aren’t going to sit back while the winning candidate is told to sit at the back of the bus,” he said, adding that the Democratic Party and Clinton risk handing the election to the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain.
Bishop Charles Blake, of Los Angeles, who as leader of the 6 million-member Church of God in Christ presides over one of the nation’s largest Christian denominations, said that black voters could come to feel so disheartened that “their whole motivation for participating in the political process in this election would be greatly reduced.”
Divisive party issue
The pastors’ comments came during a week in which racial issues have retaken a central role. Obama’s 24-point victory Tuesday in the Mississippi primary highlighted the party’s racial rift, with Obama, who is black, winning 90 percent of black voters and Clinton, who is white, winning 70 percent of white voters.
On Wednesday, a high-profile Clinton supporter, former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, stepped down from the campaign after making comments against Obama that some considered racially divisive.
Ferraro did not apologize for her comments but said that she was resigning because “the Obama campaign is attacking me to hurt you” and that she would not let that happen.
In the remarks that led her to resign, Ferraro told he Daily Breeze of Torrance, Calif., that Obama “would not be in this position” if he were a “woman of any color” or a white man.
Obama said Wednesday that discussions of race and gender were counterproductive.
“I don’t think identity politics has served the Democratic Party well,” he said. “I think it’s been an enormous distraction – I think that when we are in these conversations it means that people are not recognizing their common concerns around health care, their common interests in getting decent jobs, their common interests in making sure that we’re not loading up the national debt for the next generation to pay.”
But the candidates acknowledged that a campaign pitting the would-be first female president against the would-be first black president was destined to touch delicate nerves in a party built in part on coalitions of blacks and women.
Obama complained Wednesday that at times Clinton has invoked race in subtle ways.
“I do think that the Clinton campaign has talked more during the course of the last few months about what groups are supporting her and what groups are supporting me, and trying to make the case that the reason she should be the nominee is there are a set of voters that Obama might not get,” he said. “That seems to track certain racial demographics. And I disagree with that.”
His comment came on a day that Clinton released a demographic-oriented memo that cited Obama’s loss of support among men, women, independents and Republicans since the voting a few weeks ago in Virginia, Maryland and Wisconsin and the more recent voting in Ohio, Texas and Mississippi.
There was no mention of race. But much of Obama’s success in those earlier listed states had been attributed to his progress in winning white voters. Also, while the Clinton memo did cite Obama’s lackluster performance in Ohio, it did not mention one glaring exit poll result from that state: Of the 20 percent of voters who said race was important in their decision, nearly 60 percent voted for Clinton.
On Wednesday, Obama suggested that his ability to win white support was now unfairly in question – just as his ability to win black support had been in doubt long before he overwhelmingly won the heavily black South Carolina primary in January.
“We keep on thinking we’ve dispelled this and it keeps on getting raised once again,” he said. “This was raised after South Carolina and then we won in a host of states, and then people say, ‘Well, he hasn’t proven he can win the white blue-collar vote.’ And, we won that in Virginia and we won it in Wisconsin. And, in each state we seem to have prove this stuff all over again.”
Even Blake, the bishop of the Church of God in Christ, said he was a late convert to Obama’s team because he felt the Illinois senator’s race would make him unelectable.
Divisions within races
The finger-pointing has gone both ways. Clinton in January cited an Obama campaign document to show that her rival was encouraging the media to focus on race – forcing Obama to blame the strategy on “overzealous” staffers. And some members of the Congressional Black Caucus who are backing Clinton – and who are under pressure to switch their loyalties – have complained that Obama supporters are targeting them because of their race.
One prominent lawmaker who switched to Obama’s side after coming under that pressure was Rep. John Lewis, of Georgia, a veteran of the civil-rights movement.
One of the black Clinton backers in Congress, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, of Missouri, said in a recent interview that he feared a “backlash” if whites see blacks pressuring one another to vote based on race.
“If conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans and independents start saying, ‘Well, all these black people are being beaten up because they won’t support Barack Obama because he’s black, maybe we ought to support a candidate because a he’s white.’ I mean, what’s the difference?”